From Physics Lab to Opera House to Bookstore Near You

A profile of the Metropolitan Opera’s own C. A. Higgins, production assistant and author of the Lightless trilogy.

C. A. Higgins in front of the Metropolitan Opera House

By Edward Hanlon

       The first three rules of singing in chorus are (a) Keep your eyes on the conductor, (b) Keep your eyes on the conductor and (c) Review rules 1 and 2! 1 No matter what happens on stage 2 , a chorister must maintain a symbiotic understanding of the conductor’s intentions. But sometimes even the mighty Metropolitan Opera Chorus can be distracted; so who is disrupting the laser-like focus of the chorus this month?

       Meet C. A. Higgins, costume production assistant 3 at the Metropolitan Opera. She spends her days making sure that all costumes (and there are many, many costumes at the Met), get to the all the people that need to wear them when they need them. But that’s just her day job; she is also the author of Lightless, released in May of 2015 by Penguin Random House and named one of the best books of the year by Buzzfeed and Kirkus Reviews. Supernova, book two of the trilogy, was released this summer and the third and final entry, Radiate, is scheduled for May 23rd, 2017.

Lightless  &  Supernova,  books one and two of the  Lightless  Trilogy by C.A. Higgins

Lightless & Supernova, books one and two of the Lightless Trilogy by C.A. Higgins

       C. A. Higgins grew up a storyteller. Her earliest efforts were illustrated flip-books of happy unicorns jumping over waterfalls 4 . Those evolved into fantasy fiction she is happily reports are “mercifully not published”. But while she always wanted to be a writer, a love of science led her to a distinctly non-writerly degree in physics at Cornell University. Science and physics have become her muses. One of the core concepts of Lightless was born in a theoretical physics class: “we were talking about the inevitable thermodynamic end of the universe” and she has infused her writing style with a scientific approach. She deals with her characters “in an isolated system the same way she treats particles”. This might sound a bit dry, but the story-teller in Higgins never succumbs to the researcher. There is a tension and claustrophobia to the book that lends it much more the feeling of thriller than science textbook.

       The story is set in a future when a ruthless earth-based shadow-government dominates the solar system. This government, called the System, has launched an experimental military spacecraft (Ananke). Althea, a computer scientist on board, developed a deeply personal understanding and relationship with her ship’s computer throughout its development, launch and voyage. But when a pair of fugitives gain access to Ananke, they throw the mission, the crew, and the computer into ever-escalating chaos. Althea is cut adrift from friends she knew, the world-order she accepted, and even the rules of reality she understood 5 .

       So where does a person find time to write three books while working a full-time job making sure everyone on stage looks beautiful? Higgins is at the Met all day during the week so “I write on weekends” she said. “I can sit and get it done and not be up until midnight” like when she tries to write after a full day at the opera house. She is also aided by the Met’s seasonal schedule; during the offseason the costume shop is closed for five weeks (after storing all the costumes from the previous season and before starting the monumental task of preparing for the next season). This is the time when Higgins can really dig in and devote some real time to writing. When opera season ends, writing season begins!

       But this is, after all, an opera website so I would be remiss if I didn’t insert something gratuitously operatic 6 into the conversation. Therefore, I will ask the question on no one’s lips; the question that literally not one person has wondered after reading the book: if Lightless was an opera, who would be the composer? The author has a clear answer: Puccini. She’s biased though, “I always have to choose Puccini because he’s my favorite!”. Chorister Rebecca Carvin respectfully disagrees. She wants Nico Muhly (composer of Two Boys, performed at the Met in 2013, and currently working on Marnie, to be premiered in the 2019-20 season) to write the opera. Higgins’ colleague in the costume shop, Vicki Jo DeRocker can’t quite decide but comes in somewhere between the two: either Richard Wagner for his grandeur and drama or Philip Glass for his “futuristic, mesmerizing effect”. I’m not going to give an opinion (journalistic integrity and all that) but that doesn't mean I don't have one 7 . What I think we can all agree on is that it would make a fantastic opera! So, if you like opera, give the Lightless Trilogy a try… and if you like the Lightless Trilogy, then why don’t you stop by the Metropolitan Opera and give it a try? It’s a match made in heaven 8 .

Photo: © © Lisa Verge-Higgins

Photo: © © Lisa Verge-Higgins

C. A. Higgins is the author of the novels Lightless and Supernova and numerous short stories. She was a runner-up in the 2013 Dell Magazines Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing and has a B.A. in physics from Cornell University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her third novel, Radiate, is scheduled for release by Penguin Random House on the 23rd of May, 2017. For more information on the Lightless Trilogy check out her website or follower her on Facebook or Twitter.

  1. Maestro Palumbo, chorus master of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus, would definitely agree with this statement.

  1. … and pretty some crazy things have happened on stage at the Metropolitan Opera!

  1. … she prefers the title “Costume Production Empress”.

  1. Higgins is in good company on the literary unicorn front:
    "This is a child!" Haigha replied eagerly, coming in front of Alice to introduce her, and spreading out both his hands toward her in an Anglo-Saxon attitude. "We only found it to-day. It's as large as life, and twice as natural!"
    "I always thought they were fabulous monsters!" said the Unicorn. "Is it alive?"
    "It can talk," said Haigha, solemnly,
    The Unicorn looked dreamily at Alice, and said "Talk, child."
    Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: "Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too! I never saw one alive before!"
    "Well, now that we have seen each other," said the Unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. Is that a bargain?"

    - Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

  1. I assure you that Higgins is much better at writing novels than I am at writing synopses. So, if you don’t find yourself thrilled by the paragraph you just read, blame me, not the author!

  1. Gratuitously Operatic: my next opera aria CD title!

  1. cough (Mozart) cough.

  1. ... or at least the outer reaches of the solar system!